JBL Emerging Interview: Chris Walton shares his Ruminating Thoughts

In this Emerging Headliner interview powered by JBL, singer, songwriter and producer Chris Walton reveals the thoughts that keep him up at night, why he doesn’t want to sound perfect, why he’s embracing vulnerability and shares his home studio process.

Chris Walton wanted to be a jingle writer. “I latched on to the idea that I wanted to write really short, catchy songs used in adverts, TV and movies,” recalls the Boston-based singer, songwriter and producer from his home. 

“I loved the O'Reilly jingle!” he enthuses, grabbing his guitar and launching into, “O-o-o-o O'Reilly… Auto Parts. Ow!’” He’s not the only one – check the comments under the jingle’s YouTube video.

“It's actually such a funny story because people think that what made me want to do music would be super deep, like I was listening to Tchaikovsky and that I had this epiphany that I wanted to be the next him. And it's not – it's a commercial that I saw on TV when I was 13,” he laughs. 

“It wasn't until I got to Berkeley that I realised that that career path isn't as fruitful as it used to be. Mainly due to most of the time, with commercials and placements they're looking for songs that people already recognise, not newer songs.”

Just as well he had a change of heart, as today, Walton is known for his blissed-out blend of classic soul, jazz and funk with a chilled, modern flair, and for writing intimate, introspective love songs about the types of thoughts that keep him up at night. 

He’s speaking to Headliner on the tailend of his US tour, where he’s enjoying a rare 24 hours at home in between shows.

It's funny because people think that what made me want to do music would be super deep, and it's not!

He shares that it was Coldplay that first inspired him to take up the acoustic guitar, while his early songwriting inspiration came from Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan and John Mayer, although it wasn’t until a school career counsellor suggested he should consider music as a way to make a living that he started to take the idea more seriously.

“I 100% stumbled into it,” he nods. “The career counsellor at my high school said, ‘It says here that you've got straight As in music and you're in all the plays, performances, you're in choir, you're in orchestra. What if you went into music?’ That was the first time where I was like, ‘Oh, I guess that is actually an option and a possibility that I could do that for a living in some capacity.”

Fast forward to 2018 and Walton released his debut EP, Bsides, followed by his sophomore EP Fade in 2020. This year saw him release his debut album, Ruminating Thoughts – a nostalgic collection of love and heartache tracks.

“Most of these songs came to me at night when I couldn't fall asleep,” he says of Ruminating Thoughts

“I struggle sleeping at night – I'm more of a night owl and I really struggle when I have an idea in my head. But I don't want to get out of bed and write it down, you know? So a large majority of the songs are a combination of that process of me trying to get to sleep, and then it's 3am and I'm still sitting there, so I think, ‘Well, I might as well just do it – I know what's gonna make me fall asleep!’ That's how the album came to be an album – it's a collection of songs that were taken from that process.”

I definitely am one of those artists who does not want to sound perfect.

Looking back on his earlier EPs, Walton acknowledges that his sound has matured. These days he’s also embracing being less of a perfectionist when recording – preferring to capture raw, spontaneous-sounding takes.

“Every guitar solo on this record is a one-take thing,” he explains. “There's no splicing, there's no studio magic, there's no pitch correction. It's just that I had a good take and that's the one that we're going with, whereas in some of my earlier work, one mix could take 16 takes because the way that I played a note on take 16 was great.

"I've become more comfortable with imperfection, I guess you could say, especially in my guitar playing. Even in my vocals, I definitely am one of those artists who does not want to sound perfect. I'm not looking for the Auto Tune sound. That doesn't really appeal to me.”

In turn, he’s become more relaxed in his approach to songwriting over the years – never agonising over a melody or phrase, rather, letting inspiration strike when it may.

“I used to be a lot more precious about my songwriting process,” he admits. 

“As I get a little older I get more comfortable in my ability to write songs. What I mean by that is that I know that I can write a song in about 20 and 40 minutes or so, so with that knowledge I have been able to try different ways of starting songs," he says, providing a recent example:

"I wrote a song while I was warming up some food for dinner – I had a melody in my head that just came to me out of the ether. I was humming it and after I finished making the food, I put down the plate and grabbed my guitar, played it, recorded it, ate my food, and watched some TV. Then a couple of hours later, I finished it.”

As a man, society tells you that you shouldn't be vulnerable. That's not right.

Given that Ruminating Thoughts’ theme concerns the thoughts that keep him up at night, Walton says he has had to get comfortable with sharing his innermost feelings with the world. In fact, just before speaking to Headliner, he was tentatively working on his most vulnerable song yet.

“I think it's something that you should get used to; I'm actually working on a song right now about this,” he discloses. 

“As a man, society tells you that you shouldn't be vulnerable. That's not right. I think that some of the best songs are examples of people being vulnerable regardless of gender or gender expression or gender identity. 

"It's something that a lot of guys struggle with, but we should work on ourselves a little bit more. I know I'm working on it. Actually, right before this call I was testing something that's a tough topic for me to write about. It's already written. It's just putting it out that’s gonna be interesting…”

When pressed, the song on the album he’s most proud of – “Oh, man, that's tough. That's like picking one of your children!” – is It’s You.

“I love the soundscape and my arranging chops on that, but I think Give It Time is really good too. Specifically, the guitar solo at the end of it is probably the most challenging thing that I ever have to play live. I always look forward to playing that. Listening back to it I’m like, ‘Wow, that's crazy that I did that.”

On tour, fan favourites are stripped-back mellow tracks, Cravin’ and bittersweet Changes

“I think with Cravin’, it's an honest love song and people love love! I've noticed that couples will say that that's their favourite song. With Changes I think it's the emotion in which I sing the lyrics. It's a heartbroken song. It's very emotional. People seem to really resonate with that.”

If I could give any young songwriter any piece of advice, it would be to figure out how to make a good-sounding demo.

Ruminating Thoughts started like any other Chris Walton project: he wrote the songs and went through several rounds of revisions and edits to create the demos. He later travelled to Nashville to record the tracks in a friend’s studio over the course of two months, immersing himself in music city and experimenting with various recording techniques.

“Most songwriters should know how to make a demo because it's going to save you a lot of money and headache in the future,” he advises. 

“If I could give any young songwriter any piece of advice, it would be to figure out how to make a good-sounding demo. It doesn't have to be perfect, but good enough that if you send it to a player or producer, they'll know what you want them to do or play, or what the general vibe of the song is.”

Once Walton had all his demos recorded at home, he was itching to get them out of his computer and into the ears of fans. In his home recording space he’s recently started using JBL 305P MkII powered studio monitors, which have significantly opened up his mixes compared to when he uses headphones.

“I still do a lot of stuff in the cans, especially with the hours that I work, but it's always nice to listen back on a nice pair of studio monitors like this. I find that the JBLs have great sound clarity,” he adds, adding that they play an integral role in his tried and tested listening sessions when he’s finished a mix:

“When you listen to something in headphones it is a very controlled space so I always do a couple of different things when I'm listening to a mix. So I'll listen on headphones, then these studio monitors, then I'll usually listen on my phone, because a lot of people listen to music on their phone without any sort of listening device. 

"I listen on my AirPods and then finally I'll listen to it in my car, which is a classic, age old tested thing. Then I know it'll sound good pretty much anywhere else.”

JBL studio monitors punch way above their price point.

Given that the foundation of Ruminating Thoughts started at home and is a culmination of a ton of hard work and countless mixes, going forward Walton can see his JBL monitors playing a big part in his demo process.

“I will be hitting the studio pretty heavily in the summer and fall. I'm gonna start working on newer songs that I've been writing, getting some demos going and maybe some full productions as well. I'm actually looking to do something self-produced; I mean, everything that I do is self-produced, but solo self-produced,” he clarifies.

“In this coming year, I'm looking to do two projects and having these monitors is going to help me vastly. I don't have to go rent out a studio or be in a good listening environment to listen to my tunes anymore. So that's great, and when we're looking at stuff as musicians, I think we typically look at stuff that's outside of our price range – I know I do at least! 

"One of the cool things about the JBL monitors is that they punch way above their price point. I would recommend that any musician who's interested in starting up a bedroom studio situation invest in a pair of these, as they’ll be growing with you as you go along your music journey,” he smiles.